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[OPINION] Gender-based violence: ‘We are the difference that can be made’

Sexual, physical, verbal, power, financial and any other form of abuse is not the fault of women, it is becoming their fate. In our beloved country, three women a day succumb to abuse by their partners, leaving children, families and friends grief-stricken and often feeling guilty at their helplessness.

Over the last two weeks, I watched a performance called #JustMen twice.

It sends a message to men and demands that more men take responsibility for domestic abuse and the trauma many women, children and families are exposed to. After the show, all the men in the audience are invited to debrief where a facilitated conversation happens by men for men. The women were invited to a separate venue, for a debrief and conversation with a woman facilitator.

WATCH: South African men tell their personal stories

I found this very powerful and liberating. We walked out of the theatre and my sister and I voiced our relief at leaving what happened in that room, with the men there, to work on! Is it not about time? Women have been talking about this forever and beyond. It is time to share the burden of this responsibility with men. Many of whom live their lives oblivious to their masculinity, the bequeathed power of their manly virtues from a patriarchal, sexist and unequal society.

Watching the show a second time didn’t make the stories easier to hear. Four male South African public figures are up there, sharing with us deeply personal and raw stories of their own experiences of physical, sexual abuse and the violence of silence.

The show starts with dim lighting and the actors softly whistling and catcalling imaginary young women and girls. It grows louder and louder as they approach the audience. At both shows I was struck by how fearful I became remembering those awful experiences as a child, walking home from school! I stopped breathing, my palms were clammy and my jaw tight!

During the 1970s and 1980s we joked about it, at these shows I was acutely aware of how the humour was used to disguise the helpless fear and threatened innocence of our adolescence. How there cheers and jeers impacted my entrance into womanhood. Life wasn’t fair or equal in those times. It was fearful. Fear of the strength of those men on building sites, hanging on the café stoeps, leaning against the walls of their barely-there homes. The fear of the ease with which they could grab, choke, attack, rape or hurt us.

Not even in numbers were we safe. My sisters and I were among the privileged ones who were mostly protected, so we didn’t have to think about that much. Sitting in the theatre, it struck me how many times we were vulnerable. It struck me how many millions of women across the globe live in that cage of fear every day, without too many choices.

It is also so vivid how compliant many men are through silence and inaction. How many times have you witnessed a woman being disrespected in your company by her partner? Do you ever forget the first time you see a friend push or shove his wife, partner or girlfriend in a lapse of judgement fed by anger? What did you do? What did you say? How did you feel?

Many men walk away, it is not their business! Some men carry on as normal pretending not to have experienced the altercation. As a child, many people have memories of mothers being beaten, pushed, bullied, and dominated by fathers or partners. Along with that memory, some grown into fearful adults with regret, others grow into the perpetrators they know. A fact is, it is not up to children to protect parents. It is up to other adults in those situations.

If we all speak up and take a stand on the side of the victim, whenever we see or are subjected to this, we are the difference that can be made. If your friend is offended at your minding his or her business, he or she is either hurt, ashamed, embarrassed or not your good friend. No woman deserves, earns or learns from a beating, a shove or a slap. The lessons to be learnt and taught are to the abuser, perpetrator and the cycle can only be broken by ordinary people like us speaking up and causing a disruption or intervention.

It is not in your own family’s interest to put yourself in the firing line but you can say something. Call the police, call for help and ensure the victim is taken to a place of safety. It is in your family’s interest to see you role modelling the right thing to do, against domestic abuse and violence. If not in the heat of the moment, in the millions of moments and opportunities which present themselves after the exchange.

So often the sins of the father are passed to the sons of the father. There is an exemplary story of two sons of a chronic alcoholic. The one becomes an enormous success and the other becomes a chronic alcoholic. When asked how they managed it? Both answered: “With a father like that, what did you expect?”

At the end of any day, it is about the choices you make. You either know what you want to be and become that. Or you live your best life even if it is directly competing with what you were shown as a child. Alcoholism is a disease. Excess always brings 'dis ease'! When children feel unsafe, they grow up as fearful adults. Your child is my child is a way of life. We should all look around and see how many lives our actions touch. No friendship is real if you are unable to address peculiar and violent physical or verbal abuse by one to another. These situations force us to walk the talk.

At the #JustMen show, what struck me both times was that most men stayed but a few men left. My mind wandered to them, was the show too overwhelming, is there something that showed up for them and they were not able to deal with it or did they get the message and go off committed to speaking up? I always hope for the last one!

The first show I went to there were eight women at the debrief. The conversations were powerful and valuable. The second show had a room full of women, possibly eight times the amount of the first show. I was amazed at how open all the women were, how safe we all felt to talk from our hearts about what happened for us, our friends, our children, our parents. It was really remarkable to watch and participate. Complete strangers connected by the possibility of being heard, listening and actioning an outcome which is powerful and can be peaceful.

I feel too many of us women naturally want to fix things. This one thing I would love us to support the men in our lives to do, not take on doing it for them. They can and must be the difference between what is workable and what is unworkable, let us let them do it!

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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